The Prime Minister insisted he both could support the country through the global coronavirus pandemic and leave the transition period with the European Union by the end of the year. Boris Johnson’s interventions come amid growing speculation the Government could soon request to remain in the European Union’s single markets and customs union with the prospects of a trade agreement rapidly diminishing. Negotiations over the future relationship have been brought to a halt by the COVID-19 outbreak, with both sides’ chief negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, self-isolating after displaying symptoms
But this will not stop Britain in its quest to complete the Brexit process by December 31, 2020, according to the Prime Minister’s aides.
A UK Government spokesman said: “The transition period ends on December 31, 2020, as enshrined in UK law, which the Prime Minister has made clear he has no intention of changing.
“Our top priority as a Government is to slow the spread of the coronavirus, protect the NHS and keep people safe – we are working around the clock to do so and are providing unprecedented financial support for businesses, workers and the self-employed.
“We remain fully committed to the negotiations. We have recently exchanged draft legal texts with the EU and discussions with the Commission are continuing.”
While formal negotiating rounds have been abandoned, the two teams are still currently working on holding discussions over their draft free-trade agreements proposals.
Mr Frost, the Prime Minister’s lead negotiator, is out of self-isolation and once again working with his team.
A European Commission spokesman said: “We are providing clarifications on our respective legal texts that work that contact is ongoing and we’ll provide an update in due course on the next steps.”
Both UK and EU officials had hoped to hold negotiations via videoconferencing systems but have not yet been able to agree an exact format for the talks.
Instead they will continue holding smaller technical discussions amongst experts to see if they can find any breakthroughs in crunch areas.
Meanwhile business lobbyists believe the Prime Minister will still make an unexpected policy U-turn to allow for an extension.
They claim he is simply readying a strategy to sell a further Brexit delay to the British public.
Pauline Bastidon, head of European policy at the Freight Transport Association, told Bloomberg: “There’s absolutely no bandwidth for anything other than COVID-19.
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Some businesses fear they will not have adequate time to prepare for Britain’s new trading relationship with Brussels after being forced to overcome the economic and political fallout caused by the global pandemic.
Mr Johnson has ordered his negotiators to secure a Canada-style free-trade agreement, which would reduce trade tariffs on goods but introduce swathes of new procedures, such as extra customs paperwork.
Peter Hardwick, a trade policy adviser for the British Meat Processors Association, said: “Brexit planning has fallen off a cliff.
“All operational staff at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been diverted to COVID-19 work.”
Bob Sanguinetti, CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping, warned there isn’t enough time to implement the new systems to handle the necessary border checks on UK-EU trade.
“Those were huge projects for the UK Government before the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.